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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The wrong use of force or a lack of national policy

November 6, 2007
Todd A. Kulhanek, Student Column, Carbondale University (Illinois)

Over the last few months, there have been a rash of incidents in both the news and on video posting Web sites involving the use of Tasers against unarmed, non-violent individuals by police officers. While many of the subjects were "resisting," almost none of them were violently resisting the officers who were attempting an arrest (for the purpose of this article, "violently resisting" is characterized as trying to harm the officer, while non-violently resisting is the absence of any attempt to harm).

For the moment, most of us may agree that while it is somewhat comical to watch the DUI suspect repeatedly fall over having been "tasered," the real trend is disturbing: The inordinate use of violence via the Taser as a tool of control.

Let's be frank - the application of 50,000 volts should constitute an act of violence in anyone's book. Without question, there have been many situations where that act was necessary to (and did) protect the safety of the suspect, the officers and innocent people; however, these incidences are increasingly absent of any violence on the part of the suspect.

We are left with the inescapable conclusion - in light of no violent resistance by the suspect - that the use of the Taser is a simple means to bring quick, and absolute control over an offender; a violent method of controlling a suspect, which stands directly opposite of the manufacturer's official position that "Taser devices ... quickly incapacitate dangerous, combative or high-risk subjects ... "

Cursing at an officer, or simply refusing to sit when told to do so does not constitute "combative behavior" nor does refusing to stop filming with a video recorder confer the label "dangerous" on anyone.

The Taser is billed as a "non-lethal alternative to the use of a firearm." If an officer couldn't shoot an offender with a gun because that person refuses to stop cursing at the officer, the officer should have no right to use a lesser act of violence to affect the offender's silence. Former U.S. Marshall Matthew Fogg, who serves on the Amnesty International USA board, says that too many members of law enforcement seem to be using them as compliance mechanisms.

"It's something along the lines of, 'If I don't like you, I can torture you.'" In fact, there have been people who were Tasered for being "uncooperative" who were actually suffering from diabetic shock. The readily available means for quick and total control, on many occasions, prove to be a great temptation for some officers, sometimes with tragic effects.

According to the Amnesty International USA, March 28, 2006, report "... at least 152 people have died since June 2001 after being shocked ..." The report further disclosed that among Taser-related deaths in 2005, "... 40 were shocked more than three times, and one person as many as 19 times. A majority who died went into cardiac or respiratory arrest at the scene."

Whether the Taser was the primary cause of death, or played a contributing role is not the focus of this article. Our focus lies in the absence of a national dialogue on when a Taser should or should not be used.

While there are many law enforcement agencies that have restrictive policies concerning the use of Tasers, there are plenty of agencies that have virtually none, save the officer's discretion. In a society that cherishes freedom and stands for human dignity, the time is long past to demand a national "Taser-use" guideline.

While it would be impossible to enumerate every circumstance where the use of a Taser is legitimately called for, it is not difficult to list those circumstances where it is not. No violence should mean no Taser use allowed. And while we can be thankful that the Carbondale Police do not carry Tasers (no one needs that headache here), we should be mindful that when we graduate and move away, we may find ourselves in a community where officers are ready to give you the shock of your life if you don't do exactly what they say, when they say it.

That is, until we as a society tell them otherwise.

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